At a glance
By Nina Hendy
Accountants are the first port of call when a business wants to pivot, grow, downsize or sell, reinforcing the profession’s collective value as a constant source of advice and support.
It’s an exciting prospect for accountants. Playing such a pivotal role in their clients’ professional lives allows firms to move away from simply crunching numbers and transition to a business advisory role.
This change has in part been driven by the gradual rise in cloud-based accounting platforms, which have allowed the broader industry to focus on a more collaborative relationship with clients. However, the increasing focus on helping clients grow their businesses has undeniably also put added pressure on accounting firms.
Clients expect accountants to be proactive about their needs, promptly reply to enquiries and often cry out for more value-adding services. As such, accountants are required to wear many hats.
According to new research, the broader accounting sector in Australia has experienced modest revenue growth on the back of improved technology and value-adding services.
In fact, the sector achieved revenues of A$20 billion per year and annual growth of 1.5 per cent between 2013 and 2018, IBISWorld research found. The growth is largely due to positive business confidence and increasing demand for industry-specific advisory services, such as audit, the study notes.
Clients have also looked to accounting firms for advice on cutting costs and becoming more efficient in an increasingly competitive business environment.
Meanwhile, the industry has value-added further by incorporating new technology, such as data analytics and, of course, cloud-based accounting. A number of Australian accounting firms have been implementing digital tools and processes to help clients forecast what the future might bring, which can help them bolster profits.
An example is predictive accounting, which provides an opportunity for accountants to better engage with clients by using their database, software and analytical tools to unlock new opportunities for a client’s business.
Wolters Kluwer started offering predictive accounting a couple of years ago. The introduction of the technology into the firm meant it could help accountants accelerate lead generation and exponentially improve efficiency.
Here are some other ways accounting firms are helping clients accelerate business growth.
1. Become an adviser
Clients no longer want their accountant to just crunch numbers. They’re seeking someone they can trust to move into an advisory role and help drive growth in their business.
“Historically, accountants have worked with their clients by looking in the rear-view mirror at what occurred within their business over the previous reporting period, but that’s all changed now,” says Wolters Kluwer regional director Daniel Wyner.
Advising clients gives accountants new opportunities to entice clients through the front door, he adds.
“When you go to your accountant, unfortunately it can sometimes be like going to a dentist, but it shouldn’t be that painful. You don’t necessarily have to get clients to step outside their comfort zone in a bid to grow their business.”
Sharing technical knowledge with clients doesn’t need to always be in the context of a transactional relationship. Instead, also look for ways to educate, inspire and motivate them within their businesses, Wyner says.
Nonetheless, he notes: “Accountants have been fed a healthy diet of major tax overhauls over the last two decades. For example, when the GST came in, accountants had so much extra work presented to them.”
He says the federal budget presents an enormous opportunity for accountants to run events to better educate clients on how regulatory change can impact ways to grow their business.
Explaining areas such as changes to self-managed super funds (SMSFs) and co-contributions is a great way to share your expertise.
Accounting firms don’t need an overly sophisticated emailing solution to implement these offers, Wyner says. Rather, you just need an ability to read and understand your client base and reach out to them and invite them in so you can help them. Being proactive in this respect doesn’t need to consume additional resources within the firm.
Wyner has the digital tools in place to generate a report highlighting clients who are, for example, income earners within a certain tax bracket. He can print out a report with each client’s email address and create an offer specifically tailored to their individual needs.
“Digital tools can help accountants proactively touch base with a core group of clients and look for specific opportunities to help grow their business,” he says.
2. Run workshops
Getting the structures in place within your practice to run workshops and seminars enables you to become your own “keynote speaker”. This also is a great value-add for clients.
Melbourne-based Brent Szalay FCPA, managing director of business, tax and wealth advisory service SEIVA, has positioned the firm as a strategic partner to its clients.
“We invite clients to attend workshops, which gets them out of their own environment to analyse why they’re actually running their business and get back to their core goals,” Szalay says.
The workshops guide business owners through a series of crystal ball-gazing questions to look at where they would like to be in five or 10 years’ time.
Szalay is the first to admit the workshops aren’t rocket science, yet says this is often a new process for clients stuck on the day-to-day treadmill of running their business.
“We want to get clients thinking about the future, utilising SWOT [strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats] analysis and working with key stakeholders in the business to think about the strengths and opportunities that lie within the business that we can help them with,” he says.
The one- or two-day workshops include analysing whether the client has the capacity to facilitate growth.
“We get our clients thinking about what they would do if they had 30 new enquiries tomorrow, to see if they could handle that level of opportunity,” Szalay explains.
“Sometimes businesses think they’re ready for growth, but the truth is they don’t have the processes in place to facilitate it.”
The workshops frequently uncover business owners wearing too many hats in their operations. “As a result, we often look for ways to free up capacity and delegate so they can focus on growing their business, rather than running it.”
The hardest part is always implementation, so Szalay meets either monthly or quarterly with clients to follow up and keep them on track.
“As an accountant, you’ve got to be curious and listen to help build the wealth of your clients,” he maintains.
3. Help clients spot market trends
Assisting clients to identify market trends is another great way to help grow their business. This could, for example, include looking at broader economic and consumer trends within their specific industry sector.
There is a range of research reports and market analysis tools available to accountants that can help them spot key trends for clients.
Which one you use will depend on whether you’re intending to uncover information about geographically similar services, look at new pricing structures, or help them identify a potential new market niche.
Co-owner and director of Hobart-based firm 4 Business & Community, Joss Fenton CPA, has helped a variety of clients to identify how to transition to a more ethical and sustainable business model.
Fenton describes himself as a “registered tax agent and business nerd” offering sustainable business and accounting solutions. His advice can include clients tracking where products come from and looking at elements such as staffing and labour to ensure they’re running a sustainable and impactful business.
4. Get technical
As mentioned, adopting technology and digital tools can certainly increase your ability to evolve and grow a client’s business.
Offering to build data-driven business reports that give true insights into the most profitable areas of any business can go a long way, says Fortuna Advisory Group founder and managing director Dinesh Aggarwal FCPA.
“We can build very analytical reports that give our clients insights into deeper issues that could drive growth, which are highly valued,” he says.
“There are plenty of business intelligence data and forecasting and analytical tools on the market that can enable an accounting firm to become more technology oriented and in turn, help grow clients’ businesses,” he says.
Take the time to consider the type of business advice you want to specialise in before deciding on which tools or apps would best complement your services, Aggarwal advises.
“There are lots of digital resources out there to help you transition toward a more technical firm and step into an adviser role. It’s an exciting time for accounting firms,” he says.